Montezuma in Lübeck

In Lübeck I attended the premiere of a seldom-performed opera from the year 1755 called Montezuma, about the indigenous Mexican emperor and his defeat in the early 16th century by a small group of Spaniards under Hernán Cortés.

The libretto for this opera was written by none other than the reigning king of Prussia, Friedrich II, later known as Friedrich the Great, who detested the conquering Spaniards and admired Montezuma for his fairness, tolerance and equanimity. Friedrich wrote the libretto in some other language (presumably French) and had it translated into Italian, which was the predominant language of opera in his time.

The music for Montezuma was composed by Carl Heinrich Graun (1704-1759), who was the music director (Kapellmeister) at Friedrich II’s court in Berlin. Graun was an older contemporary of the composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787), and to me Graun’s opera music does sound somewhat like Gluck’s — no longer Baroque but not yet Mozart.

Seating in the Lübeck theater

The Lübeck production of Montezuma, staged by Ingo Kerkhof, included additional spoken texts by the German playwright Heiner Müller (1929-1995), as well as texts by Voltaire (1694-1778) and by Friedrich II himself.

Montezuma poster in Lübeck

The performance began with a spoken sentence that even I, with scant knowledge of Prussian history, recognized as coming from Friedrich II, something about the ruler being the first servant of the state. This sentence was spoken repeatedly by each soloist individually and then by each chorus member individually, creating a cacophony of thirty or so voices all saying the same (quite sensible) sentence over and over in a way that made it sound chaotic and not at all as sensible as the king had intended.

Another unique feature of the Lübeck production was that all the major roles were sung and spoken by women, including two who shared the role of Friedrich II. The Norwegian soprano Julie-Marie Sundal was “Friedrich II dreaming of being Montezuma” and singing the role of Montezuma in the opera, while the German actress Magdalene Artelt played “Friedrich II (Alter Ego)”, the other side of Friedrich’s split personality, the one who presided over the most militarized state in Europe and took an active role in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

Balconies in the Lübeck theater

One of the spoken scenes, taken from a play by Heiner Müller, shows Friedrich as a young homosexual who was subjected to a particularly brutal form of conversion therapy. With his friend and lover, Lieutenant Hans Hermann von Katte, he had made plans to leave Prussia and escape to France, but they were caught and imprisoned. Friedrich’s father, King Friedrich Wilhelm I, condemned both of them to death, but later commuted his son’s sentence and forced him to watch while his friend Katte was beheaded. He told his son: “I’ll make a man of you, and a king, even if I have to break every bone in your body.”

Of course the conversion therapy didn’t work. But Friedrich did go on to become a ‘great’ king, while at the same time being an enlightened ruler who was interested in the arts and philosophy, spoke French and corresponded with Voltaire (though he was careful to have his letters checked by a French proofreader before they were sent off). Later he invited Voltaire to come and live at his court in Berlin, but apparently the two men didn’t get along as well in person as they did in writing.

Applause after Montezuma in Lübeck

Montezuma in Lübeck was a complex production, and I must admit that during the first half I was quite confused at times, but gradually it all fell into place. I learned a lot about Prussia and Friedrich II, but not so much about Montezuma, who was treated more or less as a blank screen for the projection of some of Friedrich’s aspirations.

Actually, this was the second opera I have seen about Montezuma. The first was Die Eroberung von Mexico (The Conquest of Mexico) by Wolfgang Rihm (born 1952), which I saw in an elaborate production at the Frankfurt Opera in 2001.

My photos and text in this post are from 2020.

See also: Seventy-one opera houses in Germany.

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